Back to the Future: On Eric Adamss New York
Eight months in, the contours of an Eric Adams mayoralty are gradually emerging. An Adamsite New York—“my city,” in the words of a mayor whose fondness for the first-person possessive has become a calling card—is one that appears poised to reverse even the limited departures from the playbook of the post-fiscal crisis era realized during the de Blasio administration. Part of what is distinct about Adams, of course, is what is absent. As many have pointed out, Adams seems uninterested in any transformative policy initiative along the lines of universal pre-K, the achievement for which his predecessor, a disappointment in so many other respects, should and will be remembered. In terms of what Adams does intend to do, we can detect distinct trends in several related areas—policing, fealty to the wealthiest New Yorkers, cynical coalition building, and the ability to distract the press and ordinary New Yorkers through shallow but captivating media spectacle. The outcome, as far as one can detect, will be a return to the status quo of the post-fiscal crisis era, one where creating the conditions for profitability for the city’s wealthiest actors, in particular those in the real estate and financial industries, will be the first principle of all municipal politics. The role of the rest of the city is to live on and with the byproducts of elite desires and activities as they trickle down to the rest of us. Those whose inability or unwillingness to participate in these compromises, epitomized in the figure of the street homeless, will be neutralized by force. The frontline combatants in this offensive are the police.
Adams inaugurated his mayoralty with a pledge to cut most city services save for the police and corrections departments, a proposal that won cheers from Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, the closest thing New York has to an executive committee of the bourgeoisie. “The business community thinks Eric is heading in the right direction,” pronounced Wylde in the New York Times, which broadcasts her perspectives with numbing frequency.1 Adams occasionally pays lip service to the notion that housing, schools, and other social services have a role to play in alleviating social misery and the inconveniences to commerce it poses, but his priorities are much better measured by where the money goes. This is only the beginning of a new offensive by the forces of order—on March 22, the New York Post reported on a real-estate-backed effort to provide at least $4 million to pro-police candidates in the June primary elections.2
The major policy outcome of the 2020 uprising in New York was not a reduction in police funding, as many had hoped, but the disbanding of the plainclothes “anti-crime” units whose nominal purpose is to seize illegal guns.3 The actual role of these units in the city and its politics has been much broader—they have been the protagonists of “stop-and-frisk,” of street-level white supremacy, of summary justice, and of the invincibility of officers who step outside the law.4 Their nickname in the communities they police—“jump-out boys”—denotes the way their techniques resonate beyond individual encounters, casting a cloud of tension and fear across the neighborhoods they prowl. The officers’ self-image resembles that of the Special Forces on which the units are patterned—elite, autonomous operators whose experience on the streets of Brownsville and Baghdad affords them a privileged standpoint, one from which the conflict between liberal jurisprudence and the maintenance of order these same liberals desire emerges with special clarity. The combination of autonomy, machismo, and transgression on which such officers thrive is embodied in a quotation from Ernest Hemingway that has become a perennial favorite, emblazoned on t-shirts and squad room walls: “Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never really care for anything else thereafter.”5
Things that seem new often aren’t. In 2002, three years after its officers pumped forty-one bullets into an unarmed twenty-three year-old student named Amadou Diallo as he reached for his keys in the hallway of a Bronx apartment house, Mayor Michael Bloomberg disbanded the Street Crime Unit, only to reconstitute it as the anti-crime units who marauded the city until 2020. Now, Eric Adams has repeated the trick, resurrecting the squads under the euphemism “Neighborhood Safety Teams.”6 New Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell has promised a “surgical approach,” a nicety unlikely to be cherished by officers on the street, who operate under what they see as less-than-sterile conditions. Metaphors of cleanliness are important in urban politics; like all metaphors, they communicate something that is real but which cannot be expressed with the strictness of logos.7 This year, we will clean the streets with clean, precise policing, say the chiefs. No one will be hurt who does not deserve it.
The key to understanding how plainclothes units work is the concept of discretion, itself a measure of the distance between law, understood in its ideal sense of standards that are universal, transparent, and subject to collective, democratic deliberation and order, or the lived reality of racialized capitalism and its reproduction, which utilizes whatever ambiguities lie within the law and its enforcement as well as plain extralegal domination. This untethering from the law is achieved in the spaces of discretion afforded to police commanders—who are, after all, not elected—while plainclothes units are its vanguard. The concept of plainclothes work itself reflects the mission creep of police authority in a society that cannot discipline everyone through work. The absence of uniforms and the use of unmarked cars widen tactical options, affording officers the element of surprise, but also work to muddy the relationship between officers and the law in the minds of both themselves and those they police. “When police have uniforms on they act a lot different than when they don't,” remarked one retired police captain, reacting to the news that Adams would bring back the anti-crime units.8 The result is to detach officers from the iconography and the behavioral norms of transparent, professionalized policing and its association with a rational state, trading this framework for the modus operandi of the street gang. The informal culture of the NYPD is full of expressions of this rank-and-file autonomy, from challenge coins to the upside-down New York City flag stickers that some officers affix to their work vehicles.9 One sometimes hears the phrase “within and against” on the left; we should keep in mind the perhaps more successful ways this strategy gets pursued from the right.
Sometimes things really aren’t new. Broken windows policing itself can be understood as a framework to broaden discretion, offering officers the leeway to engage in the kind of small-scale harassment and petty domination that forms part of the secret machine of white supremacy in American cities. For eons, extortion, violence, and everyday humiliation have been normal features of the relationship between the police and Black people in American cities.10 The postwar Black freedom struggle and the movements that followed it challenged these power relationships—the Miranda decision, which sought to strengthen procedural safeguards against arbitrary authority, and the struggles for civilian review boards, which hoped to relocate authority over police to a realm of potential democratic accountability, might serve as benchmarks of this shift. Following the challenges of the 1960s, broken windows and its relatives—“quality of life,” “zero tolerance”—formed part of a movement to restore police autonomy over everyday life in communities of color. This devolution of authority back to the rank-and-file paralleled a broader movement in American politics, where “states’ rights” and “local control” became euphemisms for the restoration of the political economy of white supremacy in its post-War on Poverty guise. The street-level campaign was dramatized in countless films of the period, including Dirty Harry, Death Wish, and The French Connection, whose bar-raid scene captures the humiliation that is an essential element of this policing strategy. When Commissioner Sewell appeals to a “surgical” approach, using a term that implies police officers can neatly separate those who violate the letter of the law from those who do not, she encourages us to participate in the fantasy that this dirty side of American policing is somehow separate or beside the point. It is not.
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Few figures dramatize these conflicts with greater urgency than the four thousand or so unsheltered homeless people living in New York’s streets, subways, and unattended spaces. Every unsheltered person has a rich and unique story. But in the hands of those who create political imagery, these stories are flattened into an archetype that since the 1980s has become a deeply layered symbol in New York and an index to broader conflicts.
Why is this? The homeless sometimes interfere with the lifestyles of the well-off in direct ways, but their primary effect is broader and more diffuse. The gradual hardening of public space in New York that materialized in response to the homelessness crisis of the 1980s altered the texture of life in the city. This manifests in a variety of ways—it is the reason, for instance, for the often remarked-upon paucity of public restrooms, one of the innumerable everyday cruelties that have come to characterize life in the city in an era of social disintegration and the revenge of property owners.11
The subway is one of the few remaining easily accessible public spaces in New York. This must be so in order for the city’s economy to function—to keep real-estate valuations high, somebody must rent all that office space and fill it with people, and those people must be able to reach their jobs. Similarly, the lifestyles of the rich demand armies of servants—waiters, cleaners, doormen, hair stylists—who cannot afford to live within walking distance of their employers (witness the pique that erupted in the Hudson Valley and the Hamptons last year when it was discovered that no one willing to work minimum-wage service jobs could afford to live within a radius that made it possible to reach those jobs).12 New York’s age and its density mean that widespread private car ownership is less feasible here then elsewhere. Mass transit is the indispensable solution.
But this is not the only role the subways play in the city’s everyday life. Those unwilling to live in New York’s crowded, humiliating, and genuinely dangerous shelters find in the subway an indoor space to which entry is relatively unguarded—again, this must be so for the subway to fulfill its responsibility as the city’s circulatory system. And it is in the subway, now playing a dual role—means of transit and makeshift, profoundly inadequate shelter—that the homeless, for whom ostracism and invisibility are among the gravest injuries inflicted by a many-tentacled social monster, make themselves felt. While survival is the primary goal, the circumstances in which they are forced to pursue this survival not only profoundly damage their mental and physical well-being, but mean that they interfere with the already-stressful lives of those members of the working class still linked to elites through the wage system. They threaten to foul up a series of class compromises without which society in New York could not function. Through the issue of homelessness, and elites’ unwillingness to do anything about it, the successful working class—those who are successful in managing their exploitation without collapse—is pitted against the unsuccessful working class, those whose bad luck has resulted in insurmountable situations.
It is often pointed out that a rational solution to the homelessness crisis would involve simply giving people apartments and money. It might not even be more expensive than the current strategy for managing the problem, which consists of a cruel and endless war of attrition.13 This would be rational indeed if one’s goal were to prevent suffering. But class politics in New York are more complicated than that. The idea of equivalence is at the heart of the capitalist bargain. The notion of a “fair” wage contains it. I give you dominion over my time and the use of my powers for a roughly determined period; you give me what we agree for the time being to call a “fair” wage. In fact, as Marx showed, employers always get more than they give back—from where else could profit derive? A more clear-sighted way of looking at the problem is to say that I give you my time and you give me enough to keep me from bolting, revolting, or something else, for the time being at least. These bargains are shifting and unstable. And when they break down, societies get less stable.
The idea that you could get something without paying—without working—erodes this idea of equivalence. It’s not only about the money; it’s about the principle, about preventing the transformation of consciousness that ensues when something once thought to be not possible is suddenly shown to be in fact … possible. It would be revealed that housing need not necessarily be a commodity—private property that must be purchased or rented with money. If one group in society is permitted to violate the principle of market exchange—and is not made to suffer dearly for it—others might wonder why they must maintain the old bargains, ones that today grow stingier than those offered to their parents.
These kinds of slippery slopes were at the heart of struggles over welfare in the postwar era. One example from New York City may be instructive. When Black and Puerto Rican students occupied the campuses of the City University in 1969, they sought changes to admissions policies that would ensure incoming classes reflected the racial composition of the city at large.14 Politicians and administrators, realizing that granting this demand would mean denying seats to white working-class students, instead opted for a broader “open admissions” policy that for a brief, troubled, but wildly promising moment made New York City a paragon in the effort to provide free, universal public higher education.15 That this achievement, borne of a strange alchemy of social struggle, represented a serious threat is indicated in the way state and federal politicians targeted the City University during the city’s mid-1970s fiscal crisis, insisting as a condition of any bailout that the schools begin charging tuition, marking the beginning of a series of assaults on a university that was transforming not just quantitatively, in terms of an expanded number of students, but qualitatively, as Black, Puerto Rican, and Third-World students questioned the content and purpose of education itself.
A rational solution to homelessness in New York is not possible, then, because the principle is too expensive; the political cost is too high. Problems of ideology—of fixed, seemingly unquestionable beliefs; unquestionable, that is, until moments in which they are radically questioned—are perennial because they are linked to capitalist social formation in general, to the problems of maintaining class societies. This is why Bill de Blasio, who despite his left-ish background and more measured rhetoric employed the same kind of homeless sweeps now conducted by Adams, could no more offer a serious solution to the problem than can his successor.16 De Blasio represented the left edge of neoliberal social democracy—expand the welfare state in excruciatingly gradual fashion, but only by pumping up real estate values, exacerbating the power of those actors in the end most hostile to any social-democratic project. The lesson of the New York City fiscal crisis was that the arc within which the pendulum may swing is narrow; its limits are given by the specter of disinvestment, threatened endlessly in the form of the mantra “we must not go back to the 1970s.” The homeless are a living symbol of an epic market failure, but to address the problem outside the realm of the market remains unthinkable. What’s left is the thin blue line.
- Emma G. Fitzsimmons, “Eric Adams Proposes a $98 Billion Budget With No Cuts for N.Y.P.D.,” New York Times, February 16, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/16/nyregion/budget-adams-police-nyc.html.
- Bernadette Hogan and Bruce Golding, “Progressives Beware! Two NY Super PACs Raising $4M to Back Law-and-Order Candidates,” New York Post, March 22, 2022, https://nypost.com/2022/03/22/ny-super-pacs-raising-4m-to-back-law-and-order-candidates.
- Ali Watkins, “N.Y.P.D. Disbands Plainclothes Units Involved in Many Shootings,” New York Times, June 15, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/15/nyregion/nypd-plainclothes-cops.html.
- David Kocieniewski, “Success of Elite Police Unit Exacts a Toll on the Streets,” New York Times, February 15, 1999, https://www.nytimes.com/1999/02/15/nyregion/success-of-elite-police-unit-exacts-a-toll-on-the-streets.html.
- Jake Offenhartz, “NYPD Precinct Faces Outcry for ‘Hunting of Man’ Hemingway Quote,” Gothamist, March 17, 2022, https://gothamist.com/news/nypd-precinct-faces-outcry-for-hunting-of-man-hemingway-quote.
- Troy Closson, “N.Y.P.D. Rolls Out New Version of Anti-Gun Unit With Violent Past,” New York Times, March 14, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/14/nyregion/nypd-anti-gun-unit.html.
- This inchoate domain where reason and non-rational knowing collapse indistinctly into one another was the focus of the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg. See Marta Figlerowicz, “The Myths of Enlightenment,” Boston Review, April 9, 2019, https://bostonreview.net/articles/marta-figlerowicz-king-beasts.
- Tana Ganeva, “Eric Adams Is Bringing Back the NYPD’s Anti-Crime Unit. Do They Commit More Crimes Than They Solve?” New York Focus, March 3, 2022, https://www.nysfocus.com/2022/03/03/nypd-plainclothes-anti-crime-unit-neighborhood-safety-team-ccrb-complaints-lawsuits.
- On challenge coins, see Research and Destroy, NYPD Challenge Coins: Members Only, https://researchdestroy.com. For an example of the upside-down New York City flag, see https://twitter.com/nycemswatch/status/1163861654075060225.
- See, for example, Marcy Sacks, Before Harlem: The Black Experience in New York City Before World War I (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).
- The theme of “revenge” was developed by the geographer Neil Smith in The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (London: Routledge, 1996).
- Kaya Laterman, “What Happens When Your Waiter Can’t Afford Rent,” New York Times, July 23, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/23/nyregion/housing-labor-shortage-new-york.html; Sarah Maslin Nir, “There Are Jobs in the Hamptons. If Only Workers Could Afford The Rent,” New York Times, June 26, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/26/nyregion/the-hamptons-seasonal-workers.html.
- Dean Moses, “Game of Roams: Homeless New Yorkers Say They’re Subject to Sleepless Game amid City Sweeps,” The Villager, August 11, 2022, https://www.amny.com/news/homeless-new-yorkers-cant-sleep-city-sweeps.
- “Five Demands” (1969), CUNY Digital History Archive, https://cdha.cuny.edu/items/show/6952.
- CUNY Struggle, “CUNY at the Crossroads: A History of the Mess We’re In and How to Get Out of It” (2016), https://cunystruggle.org/cuny-at-the-crossroads. For a historical account of this era, see Conor Tomás Reed, New York Liberation School: Study and Movement for the People's University (Common Notions, forthcoming).
- Nicholas Williams, Molly Crane-Newman, Michael Gartland and Leonard Greene, “Critics Say Mayor Adams Didn’t Learn Lesson from 9,000 Homeless Encampments Torn Down by de Blasio,” New York Daily News, March 31, 2022, https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/ny-homeless-encampment-crackdown-de-blasio-adams-20220331-7c7eu5uusvganjt6bq6ppoylby-story.html.